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The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein

The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America - Richard Rothstein

This is a very informative book about a piece of American history that many of us don’t fully understand, even if we think we do: specifically, how we arrived at a place of extensive residential segregation, and how the government was way more involved in creating it than most Americans believe. The text is compact (217 pages, followed by 20 pages of FAQs and then extensive notes and bibliography) and a little bit dense, but it is accessible even if not quite as entertaining as much of the nonfiction I read.

Americans tend to assume that the U.S. became segregated based largely on the private choices of some white racists and of black people preferring to live amongst their own. However, as professor Richard Rothstein shows in detail, the truth is that government was heavily involved in promoting and condoning the segregation of African-Americans into poor communities throughout much of the 20th century. Interestingly, in the decades after slavery ended, progress was made, many integrated neighborhoods existed, and some black people attained professional success, only to see much of this progress reversed between the turn of the century and the civil rights movement of the 1960s and 70s.

Governmental involvement in segregation was extensive. The Federal Housing Authority (FHA) would only guarantee mortgages for white people, at a time when the U.S. was aggressively promoting a homeownership policy for fear of its own Russian Revolution. Uniquely at this time in history, working-class people could buy homes with no down payment and favorable mortgage terms, allowing their families to build equity for generations to come…. but only if the buyers in question were white. The FHA would also only make loans to developers who promised to build whites-only neighborhoods, often enforced through requirements in deeds that the property could only be sold to white people, which courts upheld for decades. Public housing, likewise, tended to be for whites only, with a few segregated projects for black people. Without the opportunity to get a mortgage, African-Americans were forced to double up, spend far more of their income on housing, and live in subpar areas. Municipalities took further advantage of this through zoning requirements forcing homes to be larger than black people could afford, or outright zoning particular areas as single-race-only.

Meanwhile, real estate codes classified selling homes in white neighborhoods to black people as an ethics violation—except when “blockbusting” was involved, essentially scaring white people into selling their homes fast because black people were moving in, buying the homes cheap and then selling them at high prices to African-Americans. Local governments blocked developments that would have served black people through whatever means they could, whether rezoning or increasing sewage costs to make development untenable. Local residents harassed, threatened, and in some cases bombed the homes of black people who dared move into white neighborhoods, generally while the police stood by. But black neighborhoods weren’t safe either; the interstate highway program demolished many of them even when alternate routes were available.

Finally, of course, housing does not exist in a vacuum. What you can afford depends on how much money you make, and black people faced hurdles in earning what they should have. Employers often relocated to areas in which there was no housing available to black people, and public transit from black neighborhoods to jobs has been a far lower priority than highways serving white suburbanites. Unions were allowed to discriminate against black workers and keep them in the most menial jobs. African-Americans who had reached supervisory roles in the civil service were demoted to ensure that they didn’t supervise any white people. And disproportionately higher property tax assessments also left black people with less money to spend.

This book is a thoroughly researched and scholarly account of a shameful chapter in American history that has lasting repercussions today. The value of white Americans’ property appreciated enormously in the decades that black people were barred from buying the same, putting anyone buying afterwards far behind the curve, and with wages stagnant for the last several decades, this disparity in assets will be difficult to reverse anytime soon. The author is up-front about the fact that the solutions he offers are not politically feasible in today’s environment, but he’d be lying if he claimed there was an easy or universally palatable fix.

Overall, this is very much worth reading even if you think you know a lot about American racial history. For those who are interested, it would make sense read alongside The New Jim Crow. Unfortunately, policies removing black Americans from their land continue even today, as this compelling article about the consequences of heirs’ property shows.